Apologists for the current state of public schools continue to blame the persistent achievement gap between ethnic and racial groups on social conditions or on shortcomings in the innate abilities of some groups. But the proof that such social and psychological determinism is false is the fact that the achievement gap between social and racial groups has been greatly reduced in France and other democracies. If social or IQ determinism were true, then the educational success of those nations would be impossible. It is no accident that progressivism never took hold in nations which have greatly narrowed the test-score gap between groups. By criticizing progressivism, I don't of course criticize its emphasis on humane, lively, and imaginative teaching. That has been a hallmark of good education in all times and places. I mean only to criticize its all-too-successful attack on traditional academic subject matter as being boring, useless, and even soul-deadening.
Let me remind you of the founding idea of democratic education as it was envisaged after the great democratic revolutions in Europe and America first by thinkers like Jefferson, then by Horace Mann and W.E.B. Du Bois. They wanted the focus of the schools to be on strong content in history, science, mathematics, and the arts. Those subjects were to form the common content which everyone learned. Commonality of content was the essence of the so-called "common school." The idea was that schooling should enable every person to stand on his or her own two feet, equal to every other person of similar talent and virtue, rather than, as in the past, having one's role in life determined by the status, wealth, or education of one's parents. This democratic ideal was shared by all the great founders of democratic education everywhere in the world. The common school was to be a place where children of all races and conditions would be offered the same opportunity to amplify their talents. How far short of this ideal our schools have fallen in the 20th century is highlighted by the degree to which other democracies have lived up so much better than we have to this egalitarian ideal.
They have achieved this by two basic policies that are directly opposed to the principles of progressive education — first, they have determined that the emphasis of schooling should fall on the academic curriculum, not on slogans about growth, critical thinking, and individually tailored study plans — and second, that all children should share a core of common intellectual capital. The most acute thinkers about democratic education, including Jefferson, Horace Mann, and Du Bois, believed that it is not intelligence that increases knowledge but knowledge that increases intelligence. Du Bois, who was himself the product of the New England common school, would have scorned the sentimental absurdity that each child must have his or her own special curriculum suited to his or her special personality. (emphasis added)